Plastic model of a dopamine molecule with a heart shape next to it

The big dopamine scandal

It’s 7:05, you left the house two minutes late, struggled with your keys in the door and have just got to the end of the road to see your bus heading towards the bus stop at a startling rate. You have two options here – your survival instincts kick in – it’s fight or flight time. Instead of waiting for the next bus and risking being late for work you choose the latter. You set yourself the target, “if I can get there in the next six seconds, I will make it and the rest of my day can run to plan.” So you run, legs flailing and briefcase akimbo, feet pounding the concrete. You see the queue of people lessen and you know that any second now that plastic door will shut and your dreams will hit a harsh reality. But no! The adrenaline pumps through your body and pushes you just that little bit faster and you slam your hand out just in time. You made it! The driver laughs, your fellow passengers woop and applaud. As you make your way down the centre aisle, school children, ladies with prams and pensioners high five you and congratulate you on your achievement. Well…not quite, but it feels pretty good to set short term goals and achieve them doesn’t it?

How often in your mundane daily routine do you get that sense of accomplishment when you set out to do something and win? Without getting too sciencey for this time on a Tuesday afternoon, those of you familiar with the principles behind gamification will have heard of ‘dopamine.’ It’s the neurotransmitter that is released when you are rewarded for a specific action. It’s that feel-good hormone that is produced when you’ve spent the last three hours searching for a Bulbasaur – and you find it. It’s the same fuzzy feeling a learner gets when they achieve something in game-based learning.

A lot can be, and has been said about the usefulness of gamification for engaging learners. Too much and it patronises the learner, none at all and they’re bored silly. But how can we argue with science? If we can include something in our learning content that gives the learner the “feel good” factor, they’ll be engaged to put effort into it and finish the unit because they want to – not just because they have to. That might not actually be a challenge, as such, but could in fact be as simple as addressing the learner’s concerns. It’s about having a connection with the learner, so there’s a light bulb moment; a connection. Ultimately, the learner will come away with positive thoughts about the learning experience and will be more likely to want to learn in the future.

It’s one way we can give the learner something back. Quick rewards for short term goals, which go on to affect the bigger picture. It may not feel quite the same as Chris Mears and Jack Laugher plunging head first to Gold but rewarding learners for success works. And science agrees!

In a world where so many people expect and respond well to rewarded actions, it seems silly to miss the opportunity to utilise this for elearning. Even functional apps are now using gamified elements, showing that even daily tasks need to be given some sort of purpose and reward. Imagine applying this to traditionally “dull” elearning topics!

However, as mentioned previously, it is important that learners earn the rewards that gamification gives them. Without the challenge of reaching the goal, little reward will be felt at all. Ensuring that gamification is applied appropriately is just as important as the decision to use it in the first place. Think of it as the lactic acid building up as you run for the bus – that burn in your legs as you sit down in your seat (again, *woops and claps*), only adds to the achievement. The learner needs to feel like they’ve earned a reward, that they’ve achieved something by getting to the next level. Handing out badges and trophies too easily only trivialises the learning content and lessens the reward at the end.

It’s always better to win (or learn) fair and square than it is cheat, skip modules or fake a success… Not pointing any fingers. So perhaps dopamine is the smartest (and cleanest) way to get learners to feel like winners and really commit to the learning content they are given. When applied appropriately, gamification can really be the missing link between making employees complete a course and making employees want to learn.